I started working out when I was 12 years old. So in the past 20 years (okay, 35 years), I've performed more than my fair share of workouts. One thing I really look forward to is working out in different health clubs.
Whenever I travel, I make it a point to try out other clubs — usually a half-dozen a year. These are often smaller, independent clubs, but sometimes I'm in an area that has only big-box players, so then I visit those. In our area, if I hear about a new club opening anywhere within a 60- to 90-minute drive, I'll take off for a few hours and go work out. I love to see what other clubs are like. Here are a few standouts from my experiences.
Bank vault and barbells
I once visited a club in Columbus, Ohio, that was inside an old bank building. It had those classic features you'd expect in an old bank — marble floors, high ceilings and huge, open areas.
I stopped at the desk to inquire about the building and the interesting design, and that's when the manager showed me the original bank vault. It was "built in" when the bank was constructed, so it was impossible to remove. Instead, the club turned it into a cool talking point, and everyone who worked there and worked out there knew a little about the history of the building. What a great way to connect to the local community.
There was a club in an industrial section of Allentown, Pa., that used to be a collection of old warehouses. The club had the original hardwood floors (in a health club!) that were more than 60 years old. The door to its group fitness studio was an old cargo door that was probably 10 feet high and 10 feet wide and slid effortlessly on huge, industrial rollers. The walls were the original brick.
Unfortunately, it didn't seem like any staff members there had any appreciation for the building in which they worked. This club was competing with several chains that built typical boring clubs. I left thinking it was too bad they couldn't market their unique design more effectively.
One club close to me that is newer but has some interesting design features is Steel Fitness Riverport in Bethlehem, Pa. It's located inside a giant former warehouse where raw materials coming in off the river were stored before being sent down to the various Bethlehem Steel factories, and much of its design (brick walls, exposed steel beams) and even the club's logo, pays tribute to that history. The owner's grandfather worked for Bethlehem Steel, and his brother was the contractor who converted the space into a club. I think it really makes an impact on your community if you can connect with its history and the people who lived there. You become more a part of that community.
I had read about Life Time Fitness in the trade magazines for years, and when they opened a couple of clubs near me, I was eager to visit them. When I walked into the first club, I was struck not only by its size (110,000 square feet) but by its quality of materials — plush carpet, polished stone counter-tops, leather chairs and couches. Everything was top quality.
I immediately drove across town to a second location and was a little surprised by the fact that it was an exact mirror image of the first club I visited. Instead of the juice bar being on the left, it was on the right. And instead of the check-in desk being on the right, it was on the left. Other than that, the two clubs were identical in every way. I admired their ability to make every club exactly the same, but I could have been in any city anywhere. The club had no connection to the community itself.
Another club not far from me is in an old but interesting building. It had multiple levels, and inside it felt like an old barn. Instead of capitalizing on these features, the owners tried to force the club to be like a modern box club, adding far too much equipment with apparently little thought given to how it fit in the space. There was a neat basement that they wanted to turn into a dungeon-like free weight area. Unfortunately, this approach appeared to come with a no-vacuum policy.
Contrast this with a YMCA I visited in the Midwest. The upstairs was new and modern, but it wasn't until I went down to the lower level that I discovered how interesting this place really was. It was built in the 1960s and had been upgraded several times — except for the lower level. This area had always housed the free weights, and club management left it pretty much as it was when the building first opened. On the walls were pictures of the building as it had changed over the years. But there were also pictures of people in the '60s, '70s and '80s, working out in the same area in which I was working out. What an incredible connection to this building's history.
Indoors and out
One thing I personally like is when a club finds a way to connect indoors with outdoors. Sometimes it's through large windows and sometimes it's with an outdoor exercise area.
In the Northeast, outdoor exercise opportunities are limited. A club in New Jersey had a group fitness studio with large sliding glass doors all along the back wall of the room. Outside they had built a beautiful (and fairly inexpensive) rock garden. In nice weather, the doors could be opened for fresh air or a class could even be taken outside. Year-round, the club had a way to bring the outdoors into its studio.
I'll always enjoy visiting clubs other than my own. I love seeing the different ways that clubs connect to their members, the local community or their surroundings. The next time you travel, look for new or unusual features and note the ones that make you say, "I wish we had that at our club!"
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Design notes from decades of sampling health clubs" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.